I wasn't planning to write about Ballet Nacional de Cuba, performing this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In fact, I was relieved that I didn't have to. How can you evaluate a company so storied? Its founder, the incomparable Alica Alonso, is already enshrined in the ballet canon. It is rabidly adored by its Cuban fans. It has catapulted so many spectacular Cuban dancers--Carlos Acosta, Jose Manuel Carreño, Lorna and Lorena Feijóo--into the international spotlight. The weight of its reputation, I thought, is too crushing; there isn't any room for objective analysis. Reviewing it would be like reviewing a painting that has already been declared a masterpiece. And the problem was that, from the glimpses I'd had of the company's dancers, I wasn't sure I thought they were masterful.
After seeing the company perform its program of classical excerpts, "La Magia de la Danza," last night, I'm still not sure. But I am sure that I have to write about them. They're just so...unusual!
While the rest of the world's ballet companies have been moving towards a universal technique--dancers in New York are now pretty much interchangeable with dancers in St. Petersburg--Ballet Nacional de Cuba, stuck in its communist bubble for so long, has maintained a legitimately unique style. That style is basically the style of Alonso herself: Clean, strong, powerful, with crisply defined old-world port de bras and an emphasis on flurries of turns and endless balances. A man behind me noticed that many of the women even looked like Alonso; they all wore her signature over-the-ears low bun. Few of the dancers have the impressive legs and feet that have become the international norm. But that means that the stage is always full of interesting bodies. (And frankly, the high-gloss perfection of today's top-tier companies can be visually exhausting.)
For better or for worse, nobody else moves the way these dancers do. Better, in that they are fearless and unapologetic: They're going to go for that extra pirouette, and if they don't quite make it around, no biggie. (And if they do--often adding a breath-catching suspension at the end--it's thrilling.) Worse, in that their dancing can be strangely airless, with more of an eye to precision in the placement of the hands and wrists than to through-the-body fluidity. They're self-conscious to a fault.
That self-consciousness extends to their presence onstage. These dancers are Performers, with a capital P. Sometimes they're dangerously close to just plain hammy, because they're apt to emote at top volume: It's either full-on "dramatic face" (as in the bits on the program from Giselle and Swan Lake), full-on "cute face" (Coppélia) or full-on "feisty face" (Don Quixote).
Yet it's obvious that performing--even when they're limited to the most hackneyed excerpts from the most hackneyed story ballets, as they were last night--is an utterly joyful thing for these dancers. They are the farthest thing from bored, or boring. And when they're good--like the charming Grettel Morejón and the explosive Osiel Gounod in the Coppélia pas de deux, or the always brilliant Viengsay Valdés, who managed to make her zillionth Don Q pas de deux feel fresh--they are really, really good. These artists justify the program's title. Forget about the history and reputation and legacy they're upholding: Onstage, in their element, they are simply magical.
The soloist in "Rubies" has been one of my favorite roles since the first time I danced it. I was in the corps then and it was one of my first big parts. It's so powerful and freeing. My favorite moment is when I come straight down center towards the audience, doing these sort of strutting walks on pointe. You're not playing to anyone else onstage. You're playing straight to the house. And the section with the four boys is really unusual; it's not often that a woman is onstage with four men, but she's still the one in charge. When I'm doing the penchés going offstage at the end of the first movement, I try to be calm and hope that the audience can't tell I'm trembling inside, or that my supporting leg is wobbling.
Maura Bell was determined to have a ballet career. But as a high school senior, she didn't feel ready to audition for companies yet. “I knew I had more maturing to do, both technically and as a young woman," she remembers. Bell started researching collegiate options and discovered that Indiana University's ballet department hosted a two-week summer intensive for pre-college students. “The reputation of IU spoke for itself, so I decided to do the summer intensive to get a feel for what it would be like to go there."
The deciding moment came at the end of her second week, when department chair Michael Vernon led her and fellow students on a tour of IU's Musical Arts Center. “I remember standing on that stage—it's the size of the Met— and it just clicked: This was where I wanted to be, my dream school," she recalls. Bell auditioned for the ballet department that fall. Four years later, she credits the training and connections she made at IU with her ultimate post-graduation success: a contract with Saint Louis Ballet.
College summer programs offer students a chance to experience what life would be like as a dance major, and introduce them to a wide range of possibilities for their training and future career. Even those on the fence about going to school could benefit from spending a few weeks on campus—along with the strong focus on individual development, collegiate summer intensives allow students to meet year-round faculty and current dance majors, scope out the dorms and dance facilities, and do some major networking.
I think "Emeralds" is more of an acquired taste than "Rubies" or "Diamonds." There aren't really any difficult steps, but it's extremely hard to pull off because of its simplicity. You can't just "sell it." But the musicality and simplicity come together so perfectly to make it dramatic and sweeping, and just so much fun to dance.
Former New York City Ballet principal Suzanne Farrell is famous as George Balanchine's muse, yet Balanchine wasn't the only choreographer whom she inspired. In 1984 her then-husband, Paul Mejia, also a former NYCB dancer, created a piece for her called Eight by Adler, a jazzy ballet set to the music of Richard Adler. Beginning at 0:45 after a short intro, Farrell performs the first movement in this clip from the ballet's premiere with the Chicago City Ballet.The slender, long-limbed Farrell saunters across the stage, at moments giving the audience playful smiles and sideways glances. The choreography feels improvisational, befitting Farrell's proclivity for off-balance, suspended movement. With a full jazz band onstage, the music is equally the star in this solo. Even though the slow and sultry piece is a far cry from Balanchine's fast footwork, Farrell's mesmerizing performance in Eight by Adler is a stunning example of Mr. B's famous slogan: "See the music, hear the dance." Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
"I'm kind of a collector of clothes," says Natalie Varnum. The Houston Ballet corps member turned a spare room in her home into a walk-in closet and fills it with eccentric pieces. "I love big, clear oversized sunglasses; or a high-waisted pant, socks and loafers; or a newsboy hat," she says. Varnum is inspired by icons from the '60s and '70s—Jimi Hendrix, Jane Birkin, Elton John—and she finds endless ideas on social media. She'll search Pinterest for photos, follow up-and-coming stylists on Instagram or update her own blog with "outfit of the day" posts. It was through Instagram that she recently met South Korea–based designer Sandra Meynier Kang, who reached out in hopes of collaborating and sent her a sample from her new leotard line. "It's the best way to make faraway friends now," Varnum says.
In the studio, Varnum takes a more conventional approach—sometimes. "I like a classic ballerina look, like light pink, long sleeves," she says, "or I go for something completely crazy." She commissions fun patterned leotards from her friend, former company dancer Jordan Reed, who now runs Lone Reed Designs. Her collection includes leos printed with pizza and doughnuts. Whatever she's wearing, Varnum is not afraid to stand out. "There's a time and place for a classic little black dress," she says, "but I tend to go for the more out-there pieces and colors."
Is there anything Tiler Peck can't do?
Promoted to principal at New York City Ballet by 20. Leads in everything from Balanchine's jazzy Who Cares? to classics like Sleeping Beauty to entirely new creations. A starring role in the musical Little Dancer. Check, check, check. (And that's just the beginning of the list.)
Now, her latest accomplishment is music video dancer. And we're not talking about a tiny back-up role. In Charlotte OC's new video for "Medicine Man," Peck is the sole performer of a lush contemporary ballet solo on pointe.
The past few months have brought promotions galore. We already shared Miami City Ballet's list in May as well as the major news from American Ballet Theatre last week, but we rounded up the news from nine other major companies to keep you in the loop.
The Royal Ballet
Exciting news came from London last week when Yasmine Naghdi was promoted to principal dancer after what director Kevin O'Hare called an "extraordinary year." Additional promotions include Matthew Ball and Marcelino Sambé to first soloist, and Reece Clarke, Benjamin Ella and Anna Rose O'Sullivan to soloist. Hannah Grennel, Calvin Richardson, Gina Storm-Jensen and David Yudes will take on the rank of first artists.
Yasmine Naghdi in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy of ROH.
San Francisco Ballet
With the retirement of longtime principal Lorena Feijoo and husband and wife team Davit Karapetyan and Vanessa Zahorian after the 2017 season, SFB had big (ballet) shoes to fill. In June the company announced ten promotions, including eight new members and six apprentices. Who's moving up? Jennifer Stahl (check out her crunchy kale recipe here) has been promoted to principal, and Isabella DeVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis (our February/March cover star), Esteban Hernandez and Steven Morse will be soloists. Filling those spots in the corps are SFB apprentices Alexandre Cagnat, Shené Lazarus, Davide Occhipinti, Nathaniel Remez and Isabella Walsh. Ulrik Birkkjaer and Ana Sophia Scheller are coming into the company as principals as well as a list of new corps members including English National Ballet dancer Madison Keesler. This spring will bring SFB's exciting Unbound festival of new works, and we're looking forward to seeing these dancers get their moment in the spotlight.